A numberless horde of outlanders threatens the integrity of this great land. They will probably bring laziness, drugs and rape. Their arrows will blot out the sun. They might even eat your babies. Each week, I get up close and personal with this riff-raff so you don’t have to…
Outlander the Fourth:
Pig heads would greet her downstairs every morning, before school. Pigs and any number of other grimacing carcasses — along with vegetables, rices and spices. Mar-Mar would always pop her head in the door of the kitchen and say goodbye to her grandmother on the way out. Her family lived above their own restaurant back then. She has fond memories of growing up in Mawlamyine,(1) Burma: cooking with her grandmother, attending lessons and playing with her two best friends.(2)
There were darker elements at play however. After the chaos of 1988 her father was forced to flee the city and join the Karen resistance in the jungles. She was four. It was some years before he could return home, after much hardship. Yet the happy reunion was short-lived: her baby brother passed away, leading gradually — then rapidly — to her parents’ separation. This was to have a profound effect on Mar-Mar; she was forced to move away from her grandmother and go to Yangon,(3) to live with her father’s family. Her mother went abroad in search of her sister (Mar-Mar’s aunt) and disappeared without a trace. Until one day in 1997, after three years, she was back, standing there in the porch. She had discovered the whereabouts of her sister in Thailand and wished to live with her. But she wanted her daughters to come too.
This caused considerable controversy in the household. It was finally decided that the youngest could not possibly go along — she was only six — but, grudgingly, they allowed Mar-Mar to choose herself. The sprightly thirteen-year-old grabbed at adventure with both hands.
In many ways this journey was the making of Mar-Mar, but it was certainly not a romantic adventure: churning forest rivers, human smugglers, corrupt military, narrowly-escaped sexual exploitation, Anne Frank-like safe houses, twitchy border guards, gnawing hunger and stowaway road trips paved the path to the Thai refugee camp where her auntie was to be found. And shortly after arriving: anticlimax. Camp was no promised land. Mar-Mar found it not merely bleak but unendurably boring. And so, not without risk, she made her way to the capital — Bangkok.
She spoke little about this city, but was glad when given the chance to leave it.
Today Mar-Mar lives in Milwaukee and works for Hunger Task Force. She met an Iraqi refugee, through work, and married him. He now runs a thriving furniture store and they are well known in the area, especially among Middle-Easterners. They have a young son who has just begun school. In many ways they could be considered a poster couple for the refugee community in Wisconsin. And she still cooks all the time,(4) for events and for friends, never forgetting those old recipes she learned in her Grandmother’s kitchen in Mawlamyine.
(1) Known as Moulmein during British rule, it had served as the capital during the initial conquests. It is perhaps best known in the West for being the setting of George Orwell’s short story Shooting an Elephant and from Rudyard Kipling’s poem Mandalay.
(2) A little girl and a little boy, who she always thought she would marry, as did his parents. He would be a general and she a teacher. Nothing of this childhood dream materialized.
(3) Rendered by the colonists as ‘Rangoon’, it is a former capital and the most populous city in Burma.
(4) Having mastered Burmese cuisine at a young age, she has since added many Thai, Middle-Eastern and Japanese dishes to her repertoire.